You might think of UD chemist George Luther as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, with a special talent for solving marine mysteries. In fact, Luther is now closing in on why more than 2 million bait fish died in three massive fish kills in Torquay Canal, off Rehoboth Bay, last summer.
To find the answer to this local “whodunit,” Luther is drawing on information he has about a similar system miles across the globe — the Black Sea — and verifying his hunch with the help of a novel chemical sensor he and his colleagues have developed.
On Thursday, April 26, at 7:00 p.m., at the UD College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Luther will talk about his sleuthing adventures in a free, public lecture, “Sherlock Holmes at Sea: Solving Marine Mysteries through Chemistry.” The presentation will kick off the fourth annual Ocean Currents Lecture Series, which will be held once a month at the Lewes campus through September.
“Many people were concerned about the fish kills in Delaware’s Inland Bays last year, and now we think we have a pretty good idea what caused the problem in at least one of the sites,” Luther says. “Torquay Canal, where some of the fish kills occurred, should average about 7 feet deep. However, this site is marked by an 18-foot-deep hole that was dug in the 1960s for use as a boat basin,” he notes. “Using our chemical sensors, we found that oxygen rapidly becomes depleted in this hole, and hydrogen sulfide is produced. Either circumstance — low oxygen or the production of toxic hydrogen sulfide — would be lethal to fish.”
Interestingly, Luther says he got some clues as to what might be happening in Torquay Canal from research he has conducted in the Black Sea, a large inland sea at the southeastern edge of Europe.
“An unusual feature of the Black Sea is that oxygen is found only in the upper levels of its waters,” says Luther. “As you move deeper, the sea is permeated by a high concentration of dissolved hydrogen sulfide, which forms a ‘dead’ zone that can be inhabited only by specially adapted bacteria.”
A member of the UD faculty since 1986, Luther conducts a variety of marine chemistry research at home and abroad. During the past few years, he has focused on designing and adapting needle-like electrode sensors that can be inserted into ocean waters and sediments to simultaneously measure a host of different chemicals that serve as environmental health indicators. The novel sensors have been used to reveal the chemistry of habitats ranging from salt marshes to deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
In addition to his research and teaching efforts, Luther serves on several national scientific committees and is the associate editor of three international chemistry journals. In 1996, the University of Cardiff in Wales awarded him its highest honorary title of Distinguished Visiting Fellow. Last year, the University of Delaware appointed him the Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies for his distinguished scholarly contributions and service to his profession.
The lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279.